The column of lasting insignificance…
April 16, 2016 by John Wilcock
IT'S NOT A subject that the efficient Amsterdam Tourist Office is anxious to emphasize, but clearly a goodly proportion of its 2.5 million visitors each year are attracted to the city by sex and soft drugs. Walk down charming Zeedijd opposite the Central Station: the famous red light district is located around Oudezijds Achterburgwal, an area locally known as “de Wallen” dating from the 13th century when the original citizens walled-off the sea. It's fun to visit, even for an innocent observer, with some of the alleys so narrow that eye contact with the scantily-clad “girls” only feet away is unavoidable. They spend most of their working time being appraised (and gazing back), so unashamed, unabashed staring is what they're used to. If you showed the slightest interest, they would open the door to inform you that the price for 15 minutes was 50 guilders (extra for special services). It's all very businesslike and unemotional.
As for marihuana, almost everybody agrees that the tolerant attitude that allows it to be smoked is the best way for it not to become a problem. Coffee shops usually restrict sales to 2-1/2 grams (Dfl. 25), samples to inspect being enclosed in plastic packets in the menu, and will supply the papers with which you can roll maybe half a dozen joints. Each joint will get you stoned for two or three hours.
For the neophyte smoker who, for one reason or an another, has never sampled the benevolent herb, Amsterdam offers a golden opportunity to try it risk-free, but due to the ignorant attitude that most countries' legal systems adopt, don't be tempted to take any of it home with you.
The Cannabis Retailers Association (in Dutch: BCD) published a multicolor map/guide to 29 of the city's best coffee shops plus 27 other major landmarks including Paradiso and the museums. This could be picked up at the interesting Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum, Oudezijds Achertburgwal 148, across the bridge from the Oude Kerk. It was one of the clearest maps available, everything located and containing 12 cautionary “tips for doing it right” by coffee shop pioneer Henk de Vries, owner of the Bulldog chain (on Voorburgwal, Leidseplein and Singel) The tips were especially valuable for first-time smokers, advising them not to mix marihuana or hash with alcohol (or tobacco), not to smoke when driving or working, and to know when you've had enough.
My old underground paper colleague Bill Levy told me that the real reason he considered himself blessed with being able to live there for the past quarter-century “is the sense of playfulness combined with mercantile pragmatism making Amsterdam palatable for everyday life and a future model of visionary urban harmony. This city still remains an outpost of open minds and open legs, where love and thought (Eros and Psyche) are not merely tolerated but encouraged. We take it for granted. Visitors gape. And depending on their worldview, either deplore it as licentiousness or praise it as libertarianism. It is nothing more than reasonableness, however.”
Of course, talking about sex and drugs might be a case of putting the cart before the horse, because Amsterdam truly is one of the world’s great cities. Apart from its superlative transport system (and the thousands of cyclists), there are few more delightful walks than beside the uncoiling network of canals bordering the lovely gabled houses with staircases so narrow that furniture must be hoisted by pulleys to the upper windows. Many of the canal homes were warehouses in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the port was the richest city in the world busily trading with 625 foreign harbors. The population of this international city is only 57.6% native Dutch. Almost three quarters of the population speak at least one other language, and almost half speak two additional languages. The front of Central Station is decorated with 1m. square tiles depicting the coats of arms of 15 European cities.
In a message hoping that visitors will be “inspired” by the city, it’s former mayor, Schelto Patijn, said: “In Amsterdam we are adept at the art of compromise and we are proud of the fact that we have a city in which respect for individual freedom and an understanding of how people need to cooperate in order to live together, achieve a careful balance.”
Thursday, Nov. 17: Inside Pax, the air is thick with intoxicating smoke, and upstairs the stalls of Hemp Expo are crowded. Exhibitors from half a dozen countries are displaying hemp clothing, bags, blankets; high-intensity lights and drip-feeding systems for growers; cannabis cookbooks and planting manuals; packets of seed (“We will not ship outside Europe” proclaims the Sensi Seed Bank catalog) and belts, jewelry, make-up and shoes. On the stairs dealers peddle bags of buds while volunteers from the Cannabis Action Network (2560 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94704) hand out leaflets affirming their intention “to repeal the unjust marihuana laws and educate the public about the herb's uses for industry, medicine, and recreation”. The Hemp Initiative, declaring that hemp is among the world's oldest, most valuable, and universally prolific crops, manned a stall, and so did The Institute of Medical Marihuana, proclaiming that marihuana is among the world's oldest medicines for treating such maladies as emphysema, arthritis, glaucoma, and mood disorders.
Every half-hour a busload of dopers sets off to tour 15 out of scores of cafes that serve weed along with their coffee and snacks. Riders can get on and off the bus at any point, rejoining the bus on its later circuit. Coffee shop etiquette requires buying something to eat or drink to accompany the weed which is available to smoke on the spot or takeaway. Most cafes take great pride in their particular brand and weigh it out on a digital scale (from about $8 up), rolling papers and use of a bong being included in the price.
At Grey Area the chef has been experimenting with hempseed dishes (pastas, pizzas, sprouts); at the Green House such rare strains as Chitral Special Silver Pearl, Kush, and Northern Lights are available and the health-food-oriented Paradox offers exotic cocktails such as Nervous Breakdown (avocado & coconut). Rick's Cafe displays a laconic picture of the young Bogie, smiling enigmatically with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Tropical cocktails (Between the Sheets, Fuzzy Navel, Yellow Bird) and regular booze are dispensed downstairs while Moroccan hash and chess games dominate the upper lounge. MTV plays incessantly in most bars.
Two lovely ladies preside over the cozy cafe Lucky Mothers on Keizersgracht adorned with hanging plants, peacock feathers, and quartz crystals. No liquor here, just soft drinks, coffee, and relaxing weed (Mother's Milk is the house brand) served in pre-weighed bags on a tray containing smoking accessories. CIA offers a card marked into strips that smokers here fold to use as filters when rolling joints.
Friday, Nov. 18: The speakers at the afternoon seminars were joyfully upbeat about hemp's enhanced status in the world, but already signs of divisiveness are emerging between dopesters and those who regard the Hemp Initiative as heralding great commercial opportunities. These latter unchivalrously took the position that any association with pot-smokers would be detrimental to sales of bags, clothing, and other straight items.
Aware of this potential split with the battle to legalize hemp still to be won, more than one speaker urged a united front. (The really knowledgeable, of course, were able to specify exactly how much THC the resin contained to make it smokeable). Another split, amusingly trivial, was between sinsemilla growers and a feminist activist who insist that the conventional separation of the female from the male plants during the growing period is unfairly sexist.
America's first marihuana law, delegates were told, was enacted at Virginian's Jamestown Colony in 1619 and ordered farmers to grow hemp because of its value to the new community for fiber, oil, food, and medicine. George Washington, Jefferson, Henry Ford, and Daniel Boone were just a few of the well-known hemp farmers. By 1938, the magazine Popular Mechanics was extolling the plant as “the new billion dollar crop” and listing some of the 5,000 textile plants manufactured from it. Substituting hemp for wood cellulose in paper-making would go a long way towards ending deforestation, the experts were agreed.
A Ukrainian American reported that his gift of a California catalog offering hemp T-shirts, belts and bags to his farmer friend in Kiev aroused such enthusiasm that the farmer promptly introduced the crop to his fields. But, the Yank warned, although growing and selling it was legal in the Ukraine doing business was frustrating, the kind of place where it took three hours to make a phone call to a town only one hours' drive away. Photographer Robert Connell Clarke provided a knowledgeable commentary to accompany his slides of harvesting the hemp crop somewhere in China.
Saturday, November 19: In the limousine ferrying visitors to the Green House, this year's award-winning coffee shop (“best ambiance” etc.), the driver was handing round a cigar-sized spiff and remarking on how exaggerated were his illusions when stoned. “But the most useful thing we can learn” I ventured, “is exactly what percentage of exaggeration to allow for. Because when you come down, your ability to fulfill those dreams is always greater than it was before.”
The Milkweg, a huge midtown warehouse, had changed little since my last visit more than a decade ago. A spacious concert room with bar shares the main floor with an art gallery, cafe, and seat-lined halls; upstairs are a video room, cinema, theater, and attractive tea room. Dealers informally hawk various strains of weed; there is no pressure to buy, and many of those present obviously prefer drinking. Orrin Bolton climbed onto the stage to sing. “He's Michael's brother”, revealed High Times' publisher John Holmstrom. “He has the guts to openly support the pot decriminalization movement whereas Michael won't stick his neck out for fear of losing his mainstream audience.”
High Times, of course, is keenly aware of who its friends are and frequently promotes the efforts of pro-pot bands although so far none of them has reached the superstar level.
John introduced me to the current head of NORML, the suave Richard Cowan, onetime head of Yale's rightwing YAF and a colleague of the NationalReview's William Buckley. “Expect to see him nominated as Libertarian candidate for president in 1996”, John observed Tonight, at least, the would-be president could claim to have inhaled but not smoked. The conversation, even un-stoned, was at a high level throughout the entire convention. Attendees of all ages displayed a ready intelligence that seems an ironic rebuke to those who feel that dope smokers are all dumb hippies who've never grown up. Any objective observer might well feel that a world run by bright pot smokers would be a less-aggressive as well as a more efficient and humane one than the one run by the present bunch. How many pols do you know that smoke dope? If none, the reason might be either that dopesters are too smart to get into that sickening game or that dope-smoking pols are much too hypocritical to ever admit it.
BY THE EARLY ‘80S, I was taking my video camera everywhere, crafting and editing 28-minute shows in the camera to obviate the need for post production when I returned. My base was my mother’s home near Watford past which flowed the Great Junction Canal. Nick Ray, a writer whose home was Watford, described it as “the sort of town that makes you want to travel” and, apart from an occasional trip on the canal itself, that’s mostly what I did.
Two offshore islands particularly caught my attention, the larger of which (although still pretty small) was Lundy, lashed by the waves and gales of the Atlantic and hedged by 300ft cliffs, 20 miles from the south coast of Wales. As far back as 1154 when Sir Jordan de Marisco built his castle as an impregnable base from which to pillage ships passing through the Bristol Channel, Lundy always seems to have inspired grandiose dreams for its owners.
England's Henry II was so outraged that he declared the island forfeit to the Knights Templar. But Sir Jordan barred them from landing, and the family continued their piracy for another century until one of his unlucky descendants was tricked into going ashore and hanged for the family's persistent hubris.
Even today ships must anchor offshore and transfer visitors to a smaller boat. When I visited, Lundy was accessible via a 21-mile trip on the m/s Oldenburg five days a week from Bideford in Britain's westerly Devon in winter, and also from Ilfracombe in summer. But this only on days when the sea was not too rough.
Water on the island came from wells, the waste from brewing being used to irrigate vegetables, and electricity was provided from a wind-powered generator (100 kw hours over a 24-hour period) which was turned off at midnight. No cars, animals, or guns were allowed. With a winter population of 14, rare flora and fauna, and several miles of trails through desolate moorland, sparsely populated with sheep, deer, and wild ponies, the island offered the kind of tranquility that's hard to find nowadays. Even in summer when the occasional helicopter arrived, overnight tourists were restricted to what few accommodations were available plus a campsite restricted to 30 people.
For centuries the island produced what one historian tagged “a record of association with piracy, smuggling, and assorted thuggery”. In 1609 a notorious pirate named Thomas Salkeld landed “with colors displayed in defiance of the king of England, wished his majesty's heart was on the point of his sword and declared himself King of Lundy”. The Turks, Spanish, and French all operated from the tiny island (3 miles long by half a mile wide) at one time or another, using it as a base to prey on Bristol-bound ships. Most of the pirates were eventually caught and hanged.
Lundy is an old Norse name meaning ‘puffin island’, and the birds, now a protected species, breed here from April onwards. Four hundred other varieties of seabirds have been spotted, some of which ramblers (cars are forbidden on the island) are likely to see. Sheep and a handful of goats and deer meander through the scrub and wildflower patches. Aquatic life flourishes in Lundy's ponds, the prolific and brightly colored marine life give the seabed—with its patches of yellow, orange and pink—the appearance of “a garden in full bloom” boasts a pamphlet distributed by the Lundy Marine Nature Reserve.
THE 97-FT LIGHTHOUSE, with its 130 steps, that dominates the island's point, 470 feet above the crashing waves, caught the attention of the Victorian author Charles Kingsley who wrote of its “sleepless, fiery eye (which) blinks all night over the night mists of the Atlantic. If, as a wise man has said, the day will come when our degenerate posterity will fall down and worship rusty locomotives and fossil electric telegraphs”, Kingsley added “then surely there will be pilgrimages to Lundy and prayers to that white, granite tower...” Although the flashes of light could theoretically be seen for 26 miles, they were so often obscured by fog that eventually their warning was supplemented by a pair of cannons which boomed every ten minutes.
Today, the alerts are carried by two smaller lighthouses, and the refurbished keepers' quarters of the obsolete Old Light—at one time the highest in Britain—are rented to bed and breakfast visitors. Apart from taking stimulating nature walks, staying in front of cheerful blazing fires in their cottages or, for the adventurous, kayaking around the island's eight miles of rugged coast, visitors to Lundy have no distractions which, of course, is why most of them come and certainly why I enjoyed it so much. The post office, which also serves as the local store, sells “Puffin stamps”, valid only for postage to the mainland. Ongoing mail must be additionally stamped with regular UK postage.
Sooner or later everybody finds their way to the charming Marisco Tavern, the island headquarters. Decorated with lifebelts from shipwrecks and a fireplace carved with the image and initials of a notorious smuggler, the tavern brews its own beer every Monday with water from a deep well, and stays open every day until the electricity goes off at midnight. It also serves as the island restaurant, store, and post office. It stocks groceries, bread, meat, vegetables, fresh milk from the island farm, fruit, films, drugstore items, wine, and camping fuel.
On the days that seas are too rough for the crossing mainlanders love to joke about how to predict the weather. “If you can see Lundy” they say, “it's going to rain. And if you can't see Lundy, it's already raining”.
The second of my favorite British islands, Burgh Island, is hardly an island. In fact, it’s so close to land that visitors can walk to it when the tide is out. When the tide is in, access is by way of an ungainly Sea Tractor which has been described as “a bus on stilts”. I had read about a young couple, Tony and Beatrice Porter, fixing up an Art Deco hotel on an island off the Devon coast and set off with my video camera to see them. Agatha Christie's Ten Little Nigger Boys—a title that became politically incorrect only in the 1970s—was written during her length stay as were half a dozen of other novels. One of them, Evil Under the Sun, actually had a Burgh Island setting. Noel Coward had given parties where his guests were entertained by a full scale orchestra from a raised platform in the seawater pool.
“The moment we saw the island, it was love at first sight, a dream come true, all the clichés” Tony told me breathlessly. “We had to have it, no matter what it cost. It was on the market, about to be auctioned, and the owners had had scores of inquiries—from a Canadian nudist organization, from gay groups, a rock star, some German developers, you name it. They said they wouldn't take a penny less than half a million pounds and we stayed up night talking about how to raise the money. We took a wealthy friend over to see it but it turned out he didn't like cliffs”.
We were sitting on the curving terrace fronting the Ganges Bar, named for a sailing ship built in Bombay in 1831 whose figurehead formed the bar's centerpiece. Tony gestured to a 1930 printed tariff offering stays at the hotel for a then-expensive six or eight guineas a night and continued his story.
“Finally we pleaded with our bank. We told them we'd sell everything we'd got... our house, our car, our boat, all our policies, everything we could scrape up. We went back to the owners with our offer, $550,000 and after a suspenseful 24 hours they agreed to abandon the auction and sell to us. From January 1986, Burgh Island was ours”.
But there was still to be an auction, this time of the aged hotel's furniture and fittings. A couple of thousand buyers turned up, snapping up beds once occupied by King Farouk and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, tables at which Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks had dined. The Porters acquired some wicker chairs and much of the hotel's monogrammed linen which had doubtless been in use when the Beatles stayed and when the Dave Clark Five made a movie on the island.
Tides encroach upon the beach between the mainland and Burgh Island from both east and west. When they part, access to the island can be made on foot from approximately three hours after high water to roughly three hours before the next high water. When they meet, the island is accessible by Sea Tractor which negotiates the mile or two of water between the island and Bigbury-on-Sea in almost any weather—a five-minute trip except when slowed down by big winds. Built at Newton Abbot for £8,000 in 1970 to replace an earlier model dating from the 1930s, the tractor is especially popular with children. On busy summer days there is sometimes a two-hour wait to ride a distance that can be walked in 10 minutes.
“All the kids like to have their pictures taken with the driver” said Jim Brenton, a local barman known in neighboring pubs as “Lightning”. He refers to the tractor, which operates on a hydraulic pump system, as his “little baby” and checks the mechanism daily. “It's sturdy and would never capsize but did once stall in the middle of the bay when passengers were taken off by boat. Of course, I have to be ready to turn out at all hours if necessary; it wouldn't do for islanders to be stranded on the mainland.”
The Sea Tractor can reach a top speed of about four or five miles per hour and although it ran on relatively cheap diesel fuel, it was expensive to maintain. Each one of its massive, heavy-duty tires, for example, cost more than a thousand dollars.
Smugglers and wreckers were associated with the island in previous centuries, but there was sparse documentation about their activities apart from the celebrated Tom Crocker who died at the end of a custom officer's pistol in 1811. Immortalized in the name of a Bigbury pub and by a rough carving in the fireplace of the Pilchard Inn, he is said to have buried treasure (never found) which his ghost visited from time to time.
One of the island's major assets is that it is environmentally protected from new buildings, although existing structures can be rebuilt. Among these is a ruined chapel dedicated to St. Michael, the patron saint of mariners, which in later years became a huer's lookout, a huer being the man deputed to watch for shoals of pilchards and alert the fisherman drinking away the hours in the Pilchard Inn. Millions of fish filled these waters for hundreds of years with tons of pilchards sometimes trawled in a single day. Their oil was processed on the island and the fishy remains sold to mainland farmers for cattle food.
After my chat with Tony I walked for half an hour on the narrow tracks—there are no roads—around the cone-shaped island, through bracken, wild poppies, and a pale blue bloom called squill. One especially precipitous path veered over a rocky chasm to a bird sanctuary where herring gulls and cormorants wheeled into the sky with piercing, keening cries at my approach. Here I found another crumbling ruin which Tony later told me had once housed a camera obscura. He said he planned to restore it.
Walks around the island lead inevitably to the Pilchard Inn, whose creaking sign dates the building to 1336. It served for many years as a processing and salting shed for the fish from which it gets its name. But before the 20th century, the pilchards had moved to other waters and an 1893 visitor, J.W. Page, wrote that he found the inn deserted.
Not any more. When I was there the pub was keeping regular hours, subject to accessibility between tides, although even the coziness of a cheerful log fire enticed few visitors across the sands in winter. The licensees often sat alone beside the fire with only two cats and Captain Laura for company. Captain Laura, a stuffed parrot, entertained customers for many years with his raucous vocabulary, but now sits mute behind glass.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
comments? send an email to John Wilcock
Now Available in Print!!
Don't let a real-life comic strip sneak by unnoticed. This one's too unusual (and brilliant) for that!
also available on amazon.com...
National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my books, and thank you. —JW
Now on Boing-Boing!
An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”